Qatar Ready for AFC Qualifiers While China Hands Over to Sharjah
After countless coronavirus-related delays and postponements, Round Two of the Asian Football Confederation's (AFC) 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying tournament is back. Albeit without the scheduled home and away format since all matches are now being held in centralised locations, one hub for each group (the forty contesting AFC teams have been split into eight groups, A through to H). The centralised hubs will be in Bahrain, China*, Japan, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The resumed second round begins proper on June 3rd (though matches between Japan and Myanmar and China and Guam were also held on March 28th and 30th) and will be completed, all being well, on June 15th.
Qatar, hosts for Group E, will be accommodating its opponents Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India and Oman. Reportedly, the Qataris are prepared and ready to start their tournament in Doha. In particular, the country's tried and tested COVID-19 health and safety protocols are most assuredly in place. Indeed, the tiny Arab nation was one of the first countries to kick continental football tournaments back into action, after the first wave of the global pandemic, through a host of preventive measures and safety initiatives. They have since hosted the AFC Asian Champions League, the FIFA Club World Cup, numerous World Cup qualifier matches and the Total CAF Super Cup 2020. For this round of World Cup qualifying fixtures, Qatar has managed to keep the Indian National Team in Group E's tournament, despite the deadly wave of coronavirus sweeping through India. The Qatari authorities waived their ten-day quarantine restrictions, subject to negative COVID-19 test results from the Indian squad, to allow the team to enter Qatar early. The team could then train for its upcoming games in a 'bio-bubble' - something they could not do in India due to the ferocity of the virus in their home country.
*Unfortunately, not all of the AFC's centralised hub hosts can say the same - China has had to pass the baton of host nation on to Sharjah due to COVID-restrictions hampering its competition.
Qatar is currently at the top of the standings in Group E. With five wins and one draw under the team's belt, they have 16 points with a goal difference of 15. Not too far behind are the Omanis in second place on 12 points with a game in hand. Afghanistan, India and Bangladesh are in third, fourth and fifth place respectively. While Afghanistan, India, and Bangladesh's chances of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup tournament are, based on their current standings, fairly poor (Bangladesh has already been eliminated from the running), they still stand a chance of making the 2023 Asian Cup. The first two rounds of the 2022 World Cup qualifiers doubles as the initial qualifiers for the 2023 Cup competition. For Qatar, who has already qualified for the World Cup as hosts, they are only playing in the qualifiers for a chance to take part in the 2023 Asian Cup tournament.
The 2023 Asian Cup, to be held in China, will pit the continent's top 24 teams against one another in a battle to become Asian Champions. As reigning 2019 Asian Champions, Qatar will be hoping to take its spot in the 2023 tournament by winning its group in the second round of the World Cup qualifiers. The second round's eight group winners and four best runners-up advance to Round Three of the World Cup qualifiers and qualify directly for the Asian Cup. The final 12 teams for the Asian Cup are decided via a separate third-round and playoffs. If Qatar does qualify for the Asian Cup as a Round Two group winner, which is looking highly likely, the fifth-best runner up of the second round will take their place in Round Three of the World Cup qualifiers. Good news for Oman, who may still be in the running for a place.
Before the second round qualifiers are decided, Qatar's group opponents must first head to Doha to play their remaining matches, which considering the COVID pandemic, are to be held under exceptional circumstances. However, Qatar has an excellent track record of hosting successful and safe sporting events during the COVID crisis. Organisers have worked with national and international health and safety bodies to draw up appropriate protocol and strict guidelines for such events. Players and officials are regularly tested for COVID-19 from before their arrival to Qatar and through to their exit. And, all are required to maintain set, secure 'medical bubbles' during their stay, with social distancing and wearing face masks, like virus testing, a mandatory requirement. In addition, safe, sanitised accommodation, transportation, training and medical facilities, and the continual presence of medical staff at hotels, training grounds and stadiums are provided.
So, with health and safety a top priority, the team's in contention can concentrate on their game - of which the final seven matches of Round Two will be played out in Doha's Jassim bin Hamad Stadium. Matches will be played from the 3rd to June 15th (local time) as follows:
- June 3rd:
- Afghanistan vs Bangladesh, 5 pm
- Qatar vs India, 8 pm
- June 7th:
- India vs Bangladesh, 5 pm
- Qatar vs Oman, 8 pm
- June 11th:
- Oman vs Afghanistan, 8 pm
- June 15th:
- Afghanistan vs India, 5 pm
- Oman vs Bangladesh, 8 pm
China restarted its qualifying tournament on May 30th as hosts of Group A. Against tiny island nation Guam, the Chinese won the game with a whopping 7-0 score. A good start, but China, who is currently second in its group on 10 points and behind Syria on 15 points, will be fighting to keep the country’s World Cup dreams alive over the next few weeks. Set to face off against the Maldives, the Philippines and Syria, the Chinese team will be hoping to thrash the Maldives again (the last match between the two was a resounding 5-0 to China) and break the deadlock with the Philippines (after a goalless draw in their previous meeting). Against Syria, they will be hoping to smash the Syrian's unbeaten winning streak during this round of the tournament (the Syrian's have won all five of their matches so far). However, the advantage the Chinese had as hosts to play on home-ground has been snatched away. Positive COVID tests among some team members from the Maldives and Syria have meant that the remaining seven matches will now be played out on neutral territory.
Participating teams in Group A were due to fly into China, COVID-free, and remain in bio-secure bubbles for the duration of their tournament, which would have allowed them to play without quarantining. However, since the discovery of the coronavirus in some team members, the Chinese authorities have refused to let the Syrian and Maldivian teams into China without being subject to strict quarantine conditions. As a result, both teams would struggle to finish their scheduled matches on time. As the AFC are keen to complete the second round of the Asian qualifiers without any more delays, an alternative, neutral venue to host the games was put forward - Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Though the schedule for the remaining Group A matches has yet to be confirmed, all games will be held at the 27,000 capacity Sharjah Football Stadium. The UEA is also hosting the remaining Group E matches comprising the hosts themselves, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.
The ups and downs of the 2022 World Cup Qualifiers are only to be expected in current COVID-times - the last year in football has been continually blighted by restrictions causing cancellations and postponements. Fortunately, football associations and confederations are getting better at solving the crisis' as time goes on. The dramas associated with coronavirus may not be over yet but, hopefully, the next two weeks will run relatively smoothly to allow Round Two to be completed and Asian teams to take one step closer to the 2022 tournament.
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